Solving The Tech Industry's Ethics Problem Could Start In The Classroom

May 31, 2019
Originally published on May 31, 2019 7:55 pm

Ethics is something the world's largest tech companies are being forced to reckon with. Facebook has been criticized for failing to quickly remove toxic content, including the livestream of the New Zealand mosque shooting. YouTube had to disable comments on videos of minors after pedophiles flocked to its platform.

Philosophy professor Abby Everett Jaques of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a class called Ethics of Technology to help future engineers and computer scientists understand the pitfalls of tech.
Courtesy of Kim Martineau, MIT Quest for Intelligence

Some companies have hired ethicists to help them spot some of these issues. But philosophy professor Abby Everett Jaques of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that's not enough. It's crucial for future engineers and computer scientists to understand the pitfalls of tech, she says. So she created a class at MIT called Ethics of Technology.

As artificial intelligence continues to creep into our lives, Jaques worries about privacy. She's especially concerned about facial recognition "tracking us continuously and pervasively."

Studies have already shown that facial recognition misidentifies dark-skinned people. Google came under fire when its photo app labeled black people as gorillas.

"I'm an ethicist, and I'm especially interested in these questions around ethics of things we make," Jaques says.

In one exercise, Jaques has her class of 30 students play a game that's designed to make them think about how to achieve fairness.

Jaques places a large paper bag at the front of the room. The students don't know its exact contents — only that there are treats inside. And they have to figure out how best to share them.

Jaques hopes her students learn that ethics is essential to their work as engineers and computer scientists.
Courtesy of Kim Martineau, MIT Quest for Intelligence

"All right, let's hear some ideas," Jaques tells the class.

One student suggests they dump everything out of the bag and figure things out from there. Another says they should put someone in charge of deciding what to do.

After considering a dozen ideas, the class votes to do it this way: Each student is randomly assigned a number and allowed to pick something based on their number once the bag is opened.

Jaques empties the bag. Turns out it was filled with assorted baked goods, including rice crispy treats and chocolate chip cookies.

One student has a concern: "Sorry, can we like determine who's vegan here?"

The class didn't account for different dietary needs. And that's exactly what Jaques wants the students to think about.

"Our system didn't protect a certain important minority," she says. "So we're trying to build in something afterwards [to account for that]."

That resonates with Cel Skeggs, a senior studying computer science:

"I've been the person throughout the semester beating the dead horse of 'How does this technology affect LGBTQ people?' " Skeggs says. "To the extent that some people have suggested solutions to things and then when that question's imposed, they're like, 'Oh, I didn't actually think about that thing at all.' "

This comes into play in real life too. For instance, some transgender Uber drivers were kicked off the app when a security feature couldn't recognize them. The feature required drivers to take a selfie to verify their identity but didn't account for people who are transitioning.

Srinivas Kaza, a computer science major, says learning about ethics has influenced what companies he's willing to work for. "I eliminated a lot of choices," he says and laughs.

Kaza says he wants to work with image technology, but he's really concerned about doctored photos and the spread of misinformation. "I think it's just important to not contribute to the problem," he says.

And that's exactly why Jaques created this class — for these students to understand that ethics is essential to their work as engineers and computer scientists.

"Companies better get ready because the students are going to be asking a lot of questions," she says.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We've been asking this question on All Tech Considered - just because you can develop more advanced technology, should you? A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor is trying to get future tech workers to ask that question. From member station WBUR, Zeninjor Enwemeka reports.

ZENINJOR ENWEMEKA, BYLINE: MIT philosophy professor Abby Everett Jaques thinks a lot about ethics.

ABBY EVERETT JAQUES: I'm an ethicist. I'm especially interested in ethics of things we make.

ENWEMEKA: Ethics is something the world's largest tech companies have been forced to reckon with because of problems with their products. Facebook has been criticized for failing to quickly remove toxic content, like the livestream of the New Zealand mosque shooting. YouTube had to disable comments on videos of minors after pedophiles flocked to its platform. And as artificial intelligence continues to creep into our daily lives, Professor Jaques worries about privacy. She's really freaked out by facial recognition.

JAQUES: Tracking us continuously and pervasively.

ENWEMEKA: Studies have already shown facial recognition misidentifies minorities. Some companies have hired ethicists to help them spot some of these issues. But Professor Jaques wants future engineers and computer scientists to understand the pitfalls of tech before they enter the industry. So she created a new class at MIT called Ethics of Technology. One exercise she came up with is to have her class of 30 students play a game designed to make them think about how to achieve fairness.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM CHATTER)

ENWEMEKA: Jaques puts a large paper bag at the front of the room. The students don't know what's inside, except that there are treats and they have to figure out how best to share them with the class.

JAQUES: All right. Let's hear some ideas.

ENWEMEKA: One student thinks they should just dump everything out of the bag and figure things out from there. But freshman Benjamin Spector thinks they should first put someone in charge.

BENJAMIN SPECTOR: Random benevolent dictator. Entirely empowered.

(LAUGHTER)

ENWEMEKA: The class comes up with a dozen other ideas. Then they vote. The chosen idea, each student is randomly assigned a number and allowed to pick something based on their number once the bag is opened.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM CHATTER)

ENWEMEKA: Professor Jaques empties the bag. It's assorted baked goods.

JAQUES: Rice crispy treats, chocolate chip cookies, ginger cookies and oatmeal cookies.

ENWEMEKA: But then one student says...

UNIDENTIFIED MIT STUDENT #1: Sorry. Can we, like, determine who's vegan here? And, like...

UNIDENTIFIED MIT STUDENT #2: No. No.

(LAUGHTER)

ENWEMEKA: The class didn't account for different dietary needs. And that's exactly what Professor Jaques wants the students to think about.

JAQUES: Our system didn't protect a certain important minority.

ENWEMEKA: That resonates with Cel Skeggs, a senior in computer science.

CEL SKEGGS: I've been the person throughout the semester beating the dead horse of the how does this technology affect LGBTQ people? To the extent that some people have, like, suggested solutions to things, and then when that question's imposed, they're like, I didn't actually think about that thing at all.

ENWEMEKA: This comes into play in real life, too. For instance, some transgender Uber drivers were kicked off the app when a security feature couldn't recognize them. The feature required drivers to take a selfie to verify their identity but didn't account for people who are transitioning. Srinivas Kaza is a computer science major. He wants to work with image technology but says he's really concerned about doctored photos and the spread of misinformation.

SRINIVAS KAZA: I think it's just important to not contribute to the problem.

ENWEMEKA: And that's exactly why Professor Jaques created this class, for these students to understand that ethics is essential to their work as engineers and computer scientists. For NPR News, I'm Zeninjor Enwemeka in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.